Remembering Well: Sam Bassett

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Published October 21, 2009

Given the infamy, how does it feel to be a current resident of the Chelsea Hotel? Sam Bassett knows, and through his documentary, Stanley Bard, he intends to show the world. A resident of the hotel for just over two years, the 31-year-old filmmaker-cum-photographer-cum-sculptor currently occupies the Chelsea’s pyramid-shaped penthouse (formerly the residence of indie filmmaker Shirley Clark). When he signed the lease for his rooftop haven, Sam became the last new resident ever to be allowed to live in the Hotel full time. (PHOTO: SCULPTURE BY SAM BASSETT)

He doesn’t take his role lightly: “If you’re living in the penthouse of the Hotel Chelsea you should be prolific” explained the unusually humble artist, who describes his tenancy as “a blessing.” And, while he admits that being ranked among the Chelsea’s repertoire of artistic geniuses is daunting, Sam has exceeded his own expectations with works that emerged from the very fibers of the hotel.

Guarded by a cracked painting of the All Seeing Eye, the rooftop is a recurring backdrop in Sam’s unconventional and often eerie portrait photographs. His minimalist, impermanent tape sculptures, which now zig and zag like 3-dimensional graffiti between lampposts and subway stops throughout New York, evolved from his frustrations with a notoriously temperamental neighbor. An array of fragile wooden structures began as a sculptural game Sam played with his loose kitchen floorboards. The most literal digestion of the space, however, is his series of six documentaries, each of which was inspired by the hotel’s history, tenants, or creative essence. The first five films follow the most eccentric of characters through transformative, philosophical journeys. For example, Bettina features long-time tenant and elderly artist, Bettina Bashyi, as Sam encourages her out of a 30-year reclusion. While not every film is so deeply rooted in the hotel itself, each radiates the off-beat artistic spirit for associated with the Chelsea. (PHOTO: STANLEY BARD)

The aforementioned Stanley Bard, a cinematic memoir of the man who both managed and nurtured the hotel for over 50 years, is the last film in the Chelsea series. Sam combines Stanley’s own emotional anecdotes with testaments from the dwindling herd of remaining tenants.  With an insider’s perspective, he weaves together fact and personal attachment. “This place is really like a coral reef of different artistic characters, and the idea of protecting it and understanding the sensitivity of the creative process is what this film celebrates,” said Sam of his work, which won the “Best New York City Award” after its public debut at last weekend’s Royal Flush Film Festival.

So where does Sam himself fit into this history? Well, for one thing, Stanley Bard was so in awe after attending a rooftop screening of the film that “Thank you, it’s beautiful” was all he could utter. And it must be mentioned that the artist leapt up midway through his interview to erect an impromptu 11-story tape sculpture through the hotel’s center stairwell. Needless to say, Sam deserves that penthouse apartment.